We parked in the parking lot of a small bar. Steps led up from the lot to the front door. Night had fallen and the air smelled of snow. An awning hung over the door. Neon signs either side of the door read “OPEN” and “Schlitz.”
I knew there something awful was happening. It was my eighteenth birthday and we had already been celebrating at home with glasses of Heidel-Brau Beer, my dad’s favorite. It was a big day for him. His son had turned of age and he wanted to bring me into manhood with cold, frosty beer.
Of course, I had the good sense not to tell him that I had been drinking in Kansas for some time. At the time, the drinking age for 3.2 percent beer in Kansas was 18. To drink regular alcohol of 5 percent beer, you had to be 21. Only private clubs—taverns, bars, lounges—could serve alcohol and full-strength beer.
My mates and I had bluffed our way past grocery store and gas station clerks since we were 15. All we needed was a get-away driver and some facial hair. I’m sure some of those clerks knew they were selling to underage boys. They had to. But if asked for an ID, we’d slip out and drive around until we found another mark.
Then we discovered a number of beer bars, mostly in Kansas City, Kansas, and Shawnee. They sold nothing but beer, with maybe sandwiches or peanuts. They attracted 18-to-21 who were out for a night prowl or meeting with friends. Most places had a pool table or two. Most of them carded people at the door. But we soon found the ones that did not and would not card us at the bar. In all cases, we sent the “oldest” looking one of us to buy the rounds.
In other words, I entered on my own the manly drinking world my dad wanted to use as a right-of-passage. It was good to drink at home instead of in the backseat or at the wheel. Sitting around the table gulping down Heidel-Brau iced the cake.
“It’s time to take my boy for his first legal drink,” he announced after four or five beers. “I know just the place.”
He knew a childhood mate, who he had not seen since they were kids, owned a tavern on Strawberry Hill in Kansas City, Kansas. When my dad said that he would take me there, I said, “Well, we can’t go there.”
“Why not? You’re eighteen now.”
“But dad, you have to be 21 to drink in a Kansas bar.” I was three beers in and was feeling tippy.
“Nonsense,” he said. “You’re eighteen. Eighteen year olds can drink in Kansas. Get your shoes on.”
I did as he said, hoping that, maybe, he was right. Maybe he knew something about Kansas liquor laws that I didn’t. In any case, his “friend” might just let us sit in there and have a few highballs (my dad called mixed drinks). It might be grand.
But my apprehension grew. I was already feeling a good buzz and from my dad’s behavior, I knew he was on his way to being good and sodden. We climbed into the car. My dad had brought a few beers for the drive. We opened the bottles and sipped as we drove down Stateline Road. By the time we hit 39th Street, we had drained two or three a piece. I began to shake from fear, the same kind of apprehension I felt when I walked into a place to ask for work or the time he made me walk the five miles out to the golf course when I was 14 to ask if I could caddy.
“Dad,” I said as we turned off 39th Street onto Rainbow Boulevard. “This isn’t how the laws in Kansas work. Kids can only drink in certain bars that only serve 3.2. You can only buy beer at grocery stores and gas stations, and that’s 3.2 beer.”
“Charlie Markowitz is a friend of mine from way back,” he said. “We went to grade school together. You’re eighteen, you can drink legal now. I’m taking you for your first legal drink in a bar.”
Nothing I said could stop him. When he got an idea in his head, he would have to play it out until he failed or was proven wrong. I knew that this instance was another in a long series where I would feel the shame and embarrassment from my dad being a drunk and on a mission.
I had lived through his shenanigans many times. There were the shouting matches at family gatherings when he had too much to drink. There were scenes at department stores when he was sure the store was screwing him on a price. There was that time he decided that because he had a family with kids, he could cut in the line to the Freedom Train when it pulled into Kansas City. He walked up and shoved us in line. People around him protested. He had a can of beer in his hand and another in his pocket. He almost came to blows. We stood, in front of hundreds of people, with my dad yelling at the top of his lungs.
The shame that came with these incidents smothered me as a kid. Here I was again, ready for anything to happen, mostly something bad.
We walked up the steps into Charlie Markowitz’ tavern just as the chill breeze from the west blew up. The bar was a dark place with tables, faux-leather booths, and a pool table under a stained-glass fixture. We made our way down the bar and took a seat at one of the tables. The patrons sitting at the bar looked at us, stared at us. The bartender, a lean, balding man with a mustache and a wife-beater and suspenders, looked out over the end of the bar.
“Charlie!” my dad exclaimed. “It’s been a long time.”
Charlie looked uncomprehendingly at my dad. I stiffened.
“Bill Dobson,” dad said. “You remember me.”
Charlie’s face registered no recognition. “How old is that boy?” he said. My bowels turned to ice water.
“Why, Charlie, this is my son. He’s eighteen today. I wanted to take him out for his first drink.”
“Well, you better take him somewhere else. This establishment doesn’t serve minors,” Charlie said, looking tired. The regulars turned back to their glasses of beer. A couple of them mumbled to each other. The embarrassment and shame grew so much now, I felt the urge to cry. I sat still in my chair. I already knew how this would turn out.
“Well, that’s a load of crap. I mean, Charlie, he’s eighteen, this is Kansas. He can have a drink.”
Charlie’s face turned ugly. “Who are you, anyway?”
My dad stood up and walked toward the bar, gesticulating. “Bill Dobson,” he said. “Don’t you remember?”
“I don’t know no Bill Dobson and you better get that fucking kid out of here.”
“But he’s eight . . . “
“Are you trying to tell me the rules of my bar?” Charlie stooped and pulled a bat out from under the bar. “This is fucking Kansas. Kid’s don’t drink in bars in Kansas. Now, get the fuck out before I call the cops.”
I stood now and walked up behind my dad. I was hiding, using him as a shield. “Come on, dad,” I said, tugging at his jacket. “Let’s go.” My throat hurt. The words came out guttural and unsure. “Let’s just go.” I wanted more than ever to disappear. Ftttt . . . gone.
“No,” he said, “there’s the principle of the thing.” He turned to Charlie. “There’s no reason to make this a big deal. We’ll just have a drink and go.”
Charlie grew even more ill-tempered. “Who do you think you are? I said get off my property. I won’t have the heat shut me down tonight, not because some know-it-the-fuck-all wants to get his kid drunk. Now, one last time . . . “ He popped the bar with his bat. “Get the hell out of here.”
I stumbled down the steps and ran to the car and got in. My dad still discussed his situation at the door of the bar, now mad at Charlie, who threatened my dad with the bat. Their breaths hung in big balloons under the awning.
When my dad got in the car, he opened another Heidel-Brau and gave me one. I didn’t know what to say. It began to snow. I could feel my dad stewing, and when he did that, I got a beating. I redirected the situation.
“Say, dad,” I said, shattering the silence, “I know where I can buy a six pack right close to here. Let’s just go there and we’ll drink that beer together.”
My dad eased the station wagon out onto Rainbow Boulevard. The gas station was just near a row of strip joints on Southwest Boulevard. I bought a six pack and for the first time in all the tens of times I bought beer from the guy, he carded me.
That night lives in my dreams. I sometimes find myself in Charlie Markowitz’ tavern, saddled with shame and fear and apprehension. The regulars are at the bar, smiling at me. Just when the argument comes to a head, Charlie lifts his bat and swings it at me.
Then I wake up.